Representations of race in American cinema

The ground-breaking medium of film has portrayed countless visual stories of African Americans fighting for rights, freedom and justice in the United States. Films such as Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner, Malcom X, Selma, 12 Years a Slave, 13th, and and I Am Not Your Negro are revolutionary films that give voices to historically silenced and marginalized black individuals and help raise awareness of the history of oppression and racism in America.

But there is still a lack of adequate representation of race in today’s film industry. When cinema acts as art imitating life, shouldn’t we be more concerned with not only the lack of diversity both on and behind the camera, but of the weak and stereotypical identities that are given to black characters in cinema?

The majority of films that succeed in popular culture showcase a range of diverse stories, identities and lifestyles, but they are almost always represented by white characters. It is time for the industry to recognize race in film by acknowledging black filmmakers and stars, something the Oscars has often be criticized for. It seems that films with predominantly white casts are engineered to win academy awards. Films like La La Land have the best intentions, but the lack of diversity and cultural awareness of black influences in relation to jazz is why it received so much backlash. It isn’t that films like La La Land are inherently bad, it’s that credit and acknowledgment of the cultural themes that are used in film need to be given or represented by the people from whom it originated from, instead of further exploiting elements of black culture and its history in order to represent white identities.

The exclusion of diverse representations of black identities in cinema further alienates and segregates black people from society, and aids in distorting images that people of colour have of themselves. This is why representation is so integral, if film reflects real life issues, then sad representations of race in film is reflecting a world where black people only exist within problematic/negative situations. As a person of colour, I not only speak for myself when I express how difficult it is to understand elements of my identity and cultural lifestyle in a world that is dominated by white imagery and white experiences.

In order to fully utilise film as a progressive medium, it is time for more broad and complex representations of blackness in cinema, not only in terms of identity, but within cinematic genres. The majority of black films that make it into the mainstream are usually sad portrayals of slavery, oppression or urban blaxplotation. Stories that tell of historic struggle for civil rights and freedoms are incredibly important, but it gives no room to explore contemporary black identities/issues or the way race intersects with emerging cultural matters.

This is the reason why films such as Moonlight (2016) Hidden Figures (2016) and Get Out (2017) are so essential. Through the exploration of progressive and diverse genres they have been able to start new dialogue that investigates ideas about race through subversive storytelling that challenge dominant and historic notions of systematic racism that still exist today.  Moonlight was able to challenge dominant media representations of black men and hyper masculinity by bravely exploring notions of race, gender, and sexuality within marginalized black communities.

An increase of black representation and recognition in cinema will mean nothing unless there is an understanding of why these stories are so important. White audiences having vague feelings of white guilt whilst watching 12 Years a Slave isn’t a good enough understanding of racism. Guilt doesn’t help the process, but understanding how stories of historic oppression still effect the progression of black individuals and communities today will bring us closer to equality.


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